Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan DVD

Snow Flower and The Secret Fan DVDSTUDIO: 20th Century Fox | DIRECTOR: Wayne Wang | CAST: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Russell Wong, Vivian Wu, Archie Kao, Coco Chiang, Hugh Jackman
RELEASE DATE: 11/1/2011 | PRICE: DVD $29.99, Blu-ray $39.99
BONUSES: featurette
SPECS: PG-13 | 137 min. | Drama | 2.35:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | English, French and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Director Wayne Wang’s (The Joy Luck Club) fine drama film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, based on Lisa See’s best-selling novel of the same name, interweaves the stories of two pairs of Chinese women, “laotongs,” or “sisters for life” who rely on each other for companionship and comfort. One story — the one highlighted in See’s book — is set in China’s Hunan province in the 19th century, the other in sleekly modern Shanghai.

Snow Flower and The Secret Fan movie scene

Bingbing Li embraces life in Snow Flower and The Secret Fan.

As depicted in the novel, women in 180o’s China were a repressed underclass, useful for bearing sons, spending their days in “women’s rooms” and communicating in a secret language called “nushu” that has been handed down for a thousand years. To become worthy of marriage, little girls were subjected to the brutal practice of crushing and binding their feet so they would never grow. Two such girls, Lily (Bingbing Li) and Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) become laotongs, an alliance formalized in contract (the Chinese love ritual). Even after they are married and separated, they contine to share their emotional lives through nushu messages written in the folds of a silk fan.

Director Wang captures this and counterpoints See’s original tale with that of two contemporary Shanghai women (played by the same actresses): Nina (a descendant of Lilly) and Sophia, a Korean immigrant. As teenagers, they playfully sign a laotong contract on a record, which earns the disapproval of their elders.

Yes, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a “chick flick.” It actually opens with Nina enjoying a career success then getting a call that Sophia is in the hospital, prompting Nina to quickly rush over. (Think Beaches without the histrionics of Bette Midler.) Secret Fan, however, is such a beautifully acted, richly observed and gorgeously visualized movie that you’ll have to get over the chick flick categorization.

Indeed, the images are gorgeous. Wang and his team create a different palette for each story: Modern Shanghai is all glass and steel, blacks, whites and grays, while the 19th century exudes rich colors captured in painterly compositions by a statis camera.

Shanghai’s international status is underscored by having the actors speak perfect (!) English. The acting, in English or Mandarin, is superb, especially Li and Jun in their dual roles. And in a cameo as an Australian businessman, Hugh Jackman (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) brings a mega-jolt of charisma, even showcasing his singing abilities (in Mandarin!). Western audiences, though, may have difficulty believing a woman would advise her best friend to break up with Jackman. I guess there are still cultural divides to bridge.

The excellent 20-minute bonus featurette on the DVD is more than the usual shop talk, with Wang, Lisa See and others putting the film into perspective via additional, fascinating historical information.


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About David

David Leopold is an actor, writer and videographer who would take a Sherpa ride up a Tibetan mountain to see an Edwige Feuillère movie.